Monday, September 22, 2014

We were the Culture of Speed once

An item I read about a bicyclist in Kentucky being arrested for vehicular cycling reminded me of the ChipSeal case from several years ago. I'd lost track of ChipSeal in the intervening years, so I went to see what he's up to. His blog reported police encounters from August 2013.

ChipSeal illustrates the difference between an advocate and an activist. He rides within the law, but he takes up every square inch the law allows. Because most people, including many of those paid to uphold it, do not know the law, the vehicular cyclist claiming a permitted share of the road looks conspicuously obstructive to motorists who firmly believe the cyclist has a legal duty to defer to them in all cases. And that, my friends, is the majority of motorists. So ChipSeal and others who assert their rights -- and ours -- in the face of civilian and police harassment keep motorists thinking about bicyclists, but not necessarily fondly.

Any set of principles can take on a religious level of dedication. If we as riders believe we have a right to the road, why do we not all claim this right, all the time? The activists seem to survive at least as well as the less assertive. They would say more so. By being in-your-face visible and present, they are told they make themselves a target, but they also force motorists to steer deliberately around them.

"It is common for motorists to be annoyed with my presence and express it with their automobile horns. Often, the more impatient motorists will pass me on the shoulder. Even when the road divides into two lanes again I will often get free unsolicited advice from motorists or their passengers as they accelerate past me." This is a quote from ChipSeal's blog entry for August 23. It indicates the psychological effect of assertive cycling on motorists and passengers in vehicles passing the assertive cyclist. They do not suddenly start thoughtfully considering the rights and the challenges of transportation cycling. They're just pissed off by one more idiot on a bike.

ChipSeal refers to the Culture of Speed and a windshield view of the world. We notice it now, after almost a century of motorist domination. But we were the Culture of Speed once. Not only did the introduction of human-powered two-wheelers lead to incidents of bad behavior, the bicycle as it evolved also greatly increased the speed and cruising range of a person who might previously have had to walk everywhere. Cycling groups led the movement to improve roads so they could go faster in greater safety. And from the bicycle, on the roads that cycling helped improve, transportation evolved to be even faster with the addition of external power sources that did not eat hay and crap on the road. So the bicycle was left behind by technological development. Whether it should have been is another matter. People wanted to go even farther, even faster, with even less personal effort, even though the automobile required massively greater utilization of resources and mobilization of workers, and thus a greater public cost than bicycling and a good rail system would have required. All that stuff created jobs and set money in motion, so it all seemed just wonderful.

The costs were spread over society in ways we have only begun to calculate. Individuals tend to look only at what they see coming directly out of their pockets. So they'll complain about the cost of a vehicle, registration, insurance, fuel, parking and maintenance and overlook public health and safety costs, congestion, sprawl, pollution, resource depletion and other ills until they get so bad they can't be ignored anymore.

Those of us who for various reasons took up bicycling have to varying degrees refused technology that the mainstream has accepted. Some purists refuse it entirely. Some recreationists don't really refuse it at all, even to the point of despising and persecuting bicyclists who ride on the road. Anyone can hop on a bicycle. Then, no matter what they really believe, anyone who sees them on it will lump them in with "bicyclists" as a category. The opinion of that category lies with the beholder.

Why do we ride? Usually people ride to go faster than a walk. I don't think too many people say, "I ride to go slowly." Even people who pride themselves on riding slowly will find that they have a lower limit. Otherwise, why pedal at all? So speed is relative, but it's always a factor. And relative speed is the root of all our problems with the motorized road user. It's also the root of our problems on paths where we are the fastest users. Then our speed is obvious even if we feel we are working hard to attain it.

Along with speed goes flow. Traffic systems function best when they help the elements using them to flow with the least awkwardness. Wheels create the illusion of flight, so where paths intersect these flights have to cross each other. Mostly we use a system that subordinates the flow on one path to the flow on another, or we use interchanges that keep elements in motion, using ramps and bridges to manage the connections. But motorists can change speed without major muscular exertion, whereas pedalers cannot. We are protective of our speed just as much as drivers are. Indeed, much of our desire to use travel lanes has to do with avoiding the margins of roadways, where debris and poor surface conditions would hold us to very low speeds and rough rides.

We have other reasons to ride in the lane, notably to control passing behavior. But anyone who rides mostly on narrow roads learns to give way in some places and hold the line in others. Full-on vehicular cycling might not get you hit by a car, but it could get you pummeled by someone who followed you until you stopped or tagged into the ditch by someone who had to wait behind you until you did swing right to open the gate.

All of our decisions are calculated to maintain our flow -- in other words, our best sustainable speed.

The motorized Culture of Speed certainly runs at a more frantic pace. Its unquestioning participants can't begin to understand why anyone would settle for less. Only kids and drunks ride bikes to get from place to place. Them and weirdo freaks who probably don't smell very good and must not have real jobs to get to, families to raise and busy schedules to keep. You get nowhere emphasizing the differences between us and them. You have to try to minimize them. Don't think you can do that just by wearing regular street clothes. The drunks wear those. So do the kids. You need to solve the flow problem. Do that and no one will care how we look.


RANTWICK said...

Perfect. Really.

RANTWICK said...

Your opinions and observations are still perfect. Note, though, that ChipSeal hasn't posted since August 2013).

cafiend said...

Duly edited. Thanks. I was actually thinking about that as I drove around doing errands today. "Was that this year?" Apparently not. Fortunately, the substance matters more than the date.

greatpumpkin said...

Reading through the background material on this, I was left (as I often am regarding news stories) not sure of what happened. On the one hand, the rider has a right to use the road, and on the other, an obligation not to impede traffic (both are in the law). And there is simply the element of common sense. There are local roads I will not ride on, although it is legal for me to do so, because in my opinion they are unsafe places for me to share a lane with cars. Ultimately my objective is to get where I am going, enjoy getting there as much as possible, and do so safely.

Steve A said...

I had to think about this one for quite a while...